Ken Bretschneider at Evermore Park in Pleasant
Grove, Utah, on October 20, 2018.
GROVE, Utah — The future of theme parks might just be in
a Salt Lake City suburb. This is where you will find
Evermore, where one of its star attractions is not a
state-of-the-art coaster nor a thrill ride populated with
scenes from a recent superhero movie. Instead, it is a
tavern called the Crooked Lantern.
To get to
the Crooked Lantern, one of the oddest and liveliest bars
west of the Mississippi, you must dodge the druids near
the town border, walk past the aviary without being
distracted by the woman with a baby dragon and hang a left
at the gaggle of buzzing faeries.
want to chat — faeries are a chipper lot — but it’s
best to get inside the pub’s doors before one gets led
astray. Faeries lie. Everyone here seems to know that,
especially the ghosts. And everyone is welcome.
evident by the troll-like figure awaiting a chess player
in the corner. That’s not an insult — he may very well
be a troll, the sort who lives under a mystical bridge
rather than the more modern breed found on social media.
are a regular or entering the Crooked Lantern for the
first time, expect to receive a friendly and loud
greeting, likely from the bartender Suds McBride. Crowds
are attracted to Suds, who walks atop the bar and likes to
tell guests about the time he was swallowed whole by a
fish — the 4- or 5-foot monster that lies dead,
intestines out, in the back of the bar.
particular Friday night, Suds had an announcement to make:
“My tavern is not for getting drunk and forgetting
everything,” he shouted. “My tavern is a place for
don’t tell that to the hunters — they’re the stoic
ones in all-black, ready to warn you of your impending
journey through Evermore, where the emphasis is on play
and human interaction, has only just begun.
renaissance fair, if it consisted of permanent buildings
built across a dozen acres and possessed a Disneyland-like
attention to detail. Or a game of “Dungeons &
Dragons,” only there are no dice and maps. Or picture
walking down Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A., but
instead of Mickey Mouse posing for photo ops, he asks for
help finding Minnie and suggests you go talk to Goofy —
only to talk to Goofy you first must discover a way to
earn his trust.
To set foot
in Evermore, a quirky old-English town with crooked roads,
dizzying catacombs and a bustling population of
fantastical creatures, is to not just enter a theater but
to become one of its central characters. There are no
rides — at least not yet. Instead, there are game-like
quests to seek out and lots of role play. It’s the sort
of alternate reality envisioned by video games and teased
— or warned — by TV’s “Westworld,” and it’s
going to forever change how we view theme parks.
because the tenets at the core of Evermore are already
reverberating across the theme park industry. Evermore
taps into a hunger for non-screen-based,
experience-focused entertainment, and it arrives at a time
when escape rooms continue to dot the country and we’re
seeing a rise in interactive theater, such as the
site-specific production “Sleep No More,” which helped
spawn an immersive entertainment movement.
past three summers, Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park,
Calif., has transformed its Old West-themed area into
Ghost Town Alive! which follows a loose story centered on
the drama in the mining town of Calico, where one can
avoid shootouts, partake in gambling or even create a
newspaper. In the words of one Knott’s exec, Ghost Town
Alive! is primarily about “connecting with other
there’s Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, N.M., which transformed a
bowling alley into the so-called House of Eternal Ruin, an
art gallery-turned-indoor theme park where one can step
into a fridge and enter an “Alice in Wonderland”-like
universe to uncover an “X-Files”-worthy mystery.
It’s been such a hit that Meow Wolf is expanding to
Denver and Las Vegas.
Los Angeles there’s the recently opened Two Bit Circus,
where beyond tech-savvy carnival games lie “story
rooms” such as Space Squad in Space, in which you play
the role of an intergalactic peacemaker.
classic amusement park experience is relatively
passive,” says Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell.
“You have some active participation, but at the end of
the day you sit in a seat and you’re entertained. With
immersive theater, the moment you are one-on-one with an
actor under a staircase — and you were the only one
pulled into that space and they are responding to what you
do — that hasn’t happened before.
powerful,” he continues. “All of a sudden you have
been recognized. They called you by your name. That is
awesome. Yes, I love theme parks, but the moment you have
that magical experience, entertainment has been changed
the dream of Ken Bretschneider, a tech-industry innovator
who co-founded the virtual reality company The Void. The
latter’s “Star Wars” adventures can be found at
Downtown Disney and the Glendale Galleria, among other
locales. Before The Void, Bretschneider was behind the web
security company DigiCert, and when Bretschneider ran the
latter he treated his employees and their families to a
yearly retreat to Disneyland.
was Disneyland that shaped how Bretschneider viewed
entertainment, it was Halloween parties that inspired
year I’ve done a big Halloween experience at my
house,” Bretschneider says inside Evermore’s Crooked
Lantern, sitting at the long, wooden communal table an
hour after park closing at 1 a.m. Gone is Suds, and any
sign of a goblin or a cynical hunter, the latter a woman
who sized up wannabe heroes with a scoff. “That was the
crux of me wanting to do this thing.”
Halloween parties sound like the kind of byzantine mazes
you’d see at Universal Studios or Knott’s Berry Farm.
Mermaids swam in his backward pool, and projections
indicated that there were dueling pirates behind
covered the parties, for which the public was invited, as
if they were amusement parks, writing of pianos played by
animatronic skeletons and illusions of heads floating in
vases. In 2013, Bretschneider estimates that 11,000 people
visited his Lindon home.
— literally everyone who came through — said, ‘This
is better than Disneyland.’ Now, how can anyone think my
house is better than Disneyland? I mean, I love Disneyland
and I have a very positive opinion of Disneyland. But I
started thinking about that, and I could see that for one
night, this was better.”
reasons Bretschneider, was not just more intimate but
“more immersive. There was more detail. That’s what
made it more exciting for people for that one night. So I
said, ‘What if I open up a place that can be more
exciting … for a whole bunch of nights?’”
Evermore is far from completion, Bretschneider opened the
park for October to let guests take part in a
Halloween-themed narrative that shifted not just nightly
but hourly. More than 20,000 visitors showed up during the
first three weeks. Later this month Evermore, which will
operate seasonally, debuts a Dickensian-inspired holiday
Bretschneider hopes to have completed the park’s train.
And still to come is a massive mansion-like structure that
can serve as a castle or haunted palace, depending on the
need, filled with hidden passages and secret stairwells.
actively sought out Evermore’s myths and storylines
earlier this fall learned of a plague that was inflicting
the town — those infected had roots and tree bark
growing out of their skin. Guests could align with various
guilds, the battle-scarred hunters, for instance, or the
Fae King, a towering animatronic puppet that pledged
cult-like protection to those who kneeled before him.
could simply enjoy the park’s entertainment — folksy
bands, fire-wielders, fortune tellers or archery ranges.
But all of that also is intertwined into Evermore’s
spend a night learning about the ways of the hunters, but
for them to open up to you it helps to prove you have
skill with a bow. If you pass that test, they may send you
deep into the crypts — in a cemetery filled with
very-real antique gravestones purchased in Europe — to
retrieve a requested item, which in turn could lead you to
a witch’s house.
could avoid the main plot altogether. A lovesick ghost may
give you messages to her living crush, a man who just so
happens to keep suffering random, near-death accidents.
are made up on the spot, with no input whatsoever from
Evermore’s chief creative officer Josh Shipley, a
two-decade veteran of Walt Disney Imagineering, the
company’s division dedicated to theme park experiences.
Shipley recounts a recent night when a group of guests
asked the bartender Suds if he fancied any of the women in
town. Suds randomly mentioned one of Evermore’s
characters, resulting in the customers spending the entire
night trying to create a meet-cute.
these guests were running around trying to convey the
message that Suds liked Clara,” Shipley says. “This
was not part of any aspect of our story, but our antique
seller, who didn’t know what was going on, said, ‘Take
this box to Suds. It’s a gift he can give to Clara.’
By the end of the night, our guests had created this
never opened the door to romance, but that was kind of
moment, high-tech wizardry is used relatively sparingly at
Evermore. One can find ghostly projections in some of the
crypts, and Shipley and Bretschneider are looking at ways
to bring in augmented reality. But Evermore feels
decidedly old-fashioned. Much of its stone and bricks were
imported from Europe, and Bretschneider hunted down
statues and artifacts from pre-1900 to give it a lived-in
fitting. Evermore, as well as the exploratory rooms of
Meow Wolf, the themed stories of Two Bit or the ghost town
at Knott’s, specialize in a rather ancient form of play,
one reliant on guest interaction and imagination. Such an
illusion of freedom harks back to the early days of
Disneyland and the initial vision of Frontierland and Tom
saturated with media and bombarded with digital media from
all sides all the time,” says Phil Hettema, an esteemed
designer in the theme park world who currently runs his
own company and was previously a senior executive at
Universal. “We’re actually becoming more isolated, and
the secret sauce of theme parks is that they’re really
about the experience they create between people who are
Evermore is ultimately a success, Hettema says to expect
more of what the park is trying to accomplish beyond its
Some of the
stars of Universal’s Wizarding World are its interactive
wands, which allow guests to play with one another and
turn the land itself into an attraction. Disney, for its
part, is building a “Star Wars”-themed hotel in
Florida, one in which guests will be immersed in a
storyline that unfolds over the length of the stay.
Disney’s upcoming Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, opening
next year at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, it’s been
said that guests can take on various roles. “If you want
to be a bounty hunter and you want to go on a cool
mission, we’ll let you do that,” the company said at
its 2017 fan convention, the D23 Expo.
that guests are buried in cellphones, says Hettema, the
less interested they became in pure tech-driven
where it’s really special is where it becomes that
one-on-one intimate experience, five or six people
together discovering something, playing a role maybe and
going and doing something that you just never would have
imagined you could do.” Hettema says.
theme parks have experimented with such experiences.
Knott’s had its Ghost Town Alive! Disneyland had the
short-lived Legends of Frontierland. And throughout the
1990s, Walt Disney World had the Adventurers Club, a
beloved nightclub dedicated to fictional exploits where
stones could come alive, artifacts were haunted and guests
were treated like prospective members. There were
old-fashioned radio shows, cabaret-like routines and
plenty of seemingly drunken songs.
fan outcry, the Adventurers Club closed about a decade
ago. “Adventurers Club did work,” says Shipley. “To
this day, I think it’s a tragedy that it doesn’t
exist, or that it wasn’t evolved, if that was the need
from a business model.”
however, will find a way.
growing evidence that many are going to Disneyland to role
play, even if the park isn’t officially giving them
experiences to do so. Wildly popular non-Disney-run events
such as Dapper Day allow guests to play dress-up in the
park and embody a character.
fan-created gatherings such as Adventureland Day also
emphasize costumes but additionally throw in some light
scavenger hunts. About 400 people showed up for this
year’s March event.
kid now has the power in their hand to do all these
amazing things and they don’t wanna go to a park and
just be passive,” says “Tiki” Tony Murphy, who
helped organize Adventureland Day. “They want to go and
interact socially. When you go to these organized events
it gives you that license to interact in a different way
and also to be a part of the fantasy of it — to dress up
and be a different person. I think it gives them a chance
to explore who they are.”
is the ultimate form of escapism.
things that were most immersive actually were the
lowest-tech things — Tom Sawyer’s Island, you know
things like that,” says Hettema. “And I think we’re
coming full circle back to finding out that’s where the
real magic was. Technology is less and less dazzling to us
as every day goes by because it’s so ubiquitous.”
though, has advantages that Disney and Universal do not.
For one, it
doesn’t have to struggle with creating intimate
experiences for tens of thousands of people per day. And
while Bretschneider says he is open to doing special
events and one-off nights catered to a specific brand —
business will likely depend upon it, he concedes — he
pledges that Evermore will exist as “original IP” or
he believes Evermore can succeed without linking with,
say, a known fantasy franchise or video game, he says
without hesitation, “New Orleans Square,” referencing
the ornately themed area of Disneyland with wholly
original attractions such as the Pirates of the Caribbean
and the Haunted Mansion.
classic pirates story,” Bretschneider says of the ride
that spawned the film franchise instead of the reverse.
“And it’s a classic story about a haunted mansion. It
is not IP. You don’t associate it with anything.”
importantly, for a park that relies on improvisation, the
less branding the better.
create whatever is needed for story purposes,” Shipley
says. “All the characters you met here were created for
the purpose of helping a story along. When you have an
established IP with business partners relying on that
format, you’re boxed in. Walls get smaller and smaller.
There are things you would love to do creatively, but you
can’t because you have to stay within confines that
other business units need.”
“We don’t have walls.”